Parts supplier Delphi Automotive also repeatedly tested switches
and found they did not meet GM specifications, according to emails
and other memos.
The internal documents from GM, Delphi and a U.S. safety agency
chart numerous examples of switch failure, of the sort that led GM
earlier this year to recall 2.6 million cars to replace defective
switches now linked to at least 13 deaths.
The documents, the first tranche of some 250,000 pages, were
released by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which last
week grilled GM Chief Executive Mary Barra on the automaker's slow
response to problems that GM first documented in 2001.
Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said the
documents illustrate "failures within the system." Other lawmakers
have questioned whether GM's action are criminal.
Meanwhile, a top official with the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration told General Motors in a July 2013 email that the
automaker was "slow to communicate, slow to act" on defects and
Still to be answered is whether top GM executives were aware of the
issues early on, as engineers struggled to pinpoint causes and
solutions for ignition switches that could be turned off
inadvertently with the vehicle in motion, causing the engine to
stall and cutting power to steering, brakes and airbags.
GM says it is cooperating with Congress and conducting its own
"unsparing" investigation of the circumstances that led to the
The documents show the automaker repeatedly elected not to fix or
replace the faulty switches, because there was no acceptable
"business case", an indication the solution was deemed too
Federal regulators as early as 2007 were concerned that GM was
dragging its heels on safety measures as consumer complaints
mounted, but top officials at NHTSA never followed through on
staffers' recommendations to open a broad investigation, according
to the documents.
EARLY EVIDENCE OF PROBLEM
It was determined eventually by GM that the switches didn't have
enough torque, the rotational force required to keep them from
moving from the "run" position to "accessory" which shut down the
A root cause of the problem was a tiny set of parts, called a detent
plunger and spring, that helped keep the ignition key in position
while the car was running.
A GM engineer at the automaker's mid-Michigan test track encountered
an early problem with the switch while driving a prototype of the
2003 Saturn Ion in July 2001.
An internal GM memo on the incident noted that a "tear down
evaluation on the switch revealed two cause of failure. Low contact
force and low detent plunger force." The memo said both issues were
resolved with newer parts, and the case was closed that November,
less than a year before the all-new Ion went into production. One of
the engineers who signed off on the fix was Ray DeGiorgio, the
designer of the switch.
DeGiorgio was one of two GM engineers placed on paid leave earlier
this week as GM continues an internal investigation of the recall.
GM did not explain the move and DeGiorgio could not be reached for
Supplier Delphi submitted a batch of Ion switches in December 2001,
but informed GM that its tests showed many of the switches did not
meet GM's torque specifications, according to GM validation
documents. Nevertheless, GM approved the parts for production in May
2002, another document shows. The first Ion rolled off the line in
August that year.
GM was already beginning to monitor customer complaints about
engines stalling in the Ion in 2003, but noted "technicians are
rarely able to duplicate the concern."
FAULTY COBALT SWITCHES
In the meantime, the automaker had begun to develop a sibling to the
Ion, the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt. While testing some of the first cars
off the assembly line in October 2004, engineer Gary Altman noted
that "the driver's knee bumped the key in such a manner as to turn
off the ignition."
Altman, the program engineering manager for the Cobalt and Ion, was
the second GM engineer put on paid leave this week for undisclosed
reasons. He could not be reached for comment.
Engineers considered possible remedies, but it was decided that "the
tooling cost and piece price are too high" and the lead time
required to make the change too long. The case was closed in March
2005, with engineer Blendi Sullaj noting, "None of the solutions
represents an acceptable business case."
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Problems persisted with engines stalling in the Cobalt, which GM
engineers by then had traced to the faulty switches.
In another document, Delphi engineers on June 14, 2005, discussed a
request from GM that they perform an analysis on the switch.
"Cobalt is blowing up in their face in regards to turning off with
the drivers knee," wrote Delphi engineer John Coniff.
A second GM investigation in June 2005 for stalling engines in the
Cobalt resulted in a recommendation to provide an ignition key
insert to customers, but no change in the faulty switch because the
"business case (was) not supported" to redesign the part.
group of GM engineers in September 2005, in an email chain,
discussed postponement until fall 2008 of a proposal to implement a
new switch on the Cobalt, Ion and companion vehicles, because the
change would add $400,000 in retooling cost, plus an additional 90
cents per vehicle.
Lori Queen, the top executive overseeing GM's small car team,
challenged the delay, saying, "I'm not sure it's ok to wait." She
could not be reached for comment.
DeGiorgio began working with Delphi engineers to implement a more
modest change to the existing switch, according to several GM and
DeGiorgio signed off on a redesigned switch without a new part
number, according to a Delphi internal memo dated May 27, 2006.
Since the redesigned switch, which was installed that fall in 2007
Cobalts and Ions, carried over the old part number, it was harder
for GM investigators in later years to trace and pinpoint problems
in the cars.
DeGiorgio, in a 2013 deposition in a Georgia lawsuit against GM,
denied any knowledge of or involvement in the 2006 design change on
With "much left to examine," according to Upton, the House panel, as
well as a Senate panel conducting its own investigation, is expected
to take weeks examining the load of materials collected from GM,
Delphi and NHTSA.
Both panels held hearings last week. Additional hearings are
expected later this spring or into summer, when Barra and other GM
executives are expected to testify.
According to one document obtained by the committee, Barra, who
assumed the top position in January, received an email in 2011
pointing to steering problems in GM models that later were recalled.
That email cited a New York Times story dated October 3, 2011, which
reported on NHTSA deliberations concerning Saturn Ions and Chevrolet
Cobalts that were experiencing steering problems related to a loss
The email to Barra, however, does not mention ignition switch
problems, something the new CEO said she became aware of just last
December. GM said the two issues were "completely separate".
Congress is trying to determine whether GM officials failed to react
in a timely way to the critical safety defect and whether NHTSA
regulators also may have failed to carry out their duties.
Frank Borris, head of NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation, said
in a July 2013 email to GM executive Carmen Benavides that the
company was more difficult to work with than other automakers and he
cited six instances in which the agency disagreed with GM on safety
issues. This was the same email that accused GM of being "slow to
communicate" and "slow to act" on details and recalls.
Some members of Congress already are discussing the possibility of
passing legislation to increase civil and criminal penalties for
automakers' failure to react quickly to safety concerns and to
tighten reporting requirements in crashes involving fatalities.
(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards and Marilyn Thompson in
Washington, Bernie Woodall in Detroit, Jessica Dye in New York, and
Peter Henderson in San Francisco; editing by Karey Van Hall and
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